Buildings Department Burnout

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A Queens building that burned to the ground in a catastrophic fire in early December was the site of extensive renovations that were being done without proper permits from the city Department of Buildings, City Limits has learned. The fire erupted just eight days after a marathon City Hall hearing at which angry politicians, professionals and activists derided the department for lax enforcement and general incompetence.

No lives were lost in the massive fire at 153-01 Northern Boulevard, but it injured at least two firefighters, left one family homeless and destroyed three businesses. It took 12 hours and some 200 firefighters to put out the flames.

A Fire Department investigation showed that sparks from a welding torch set off the blaze.

Department of Buildings records show that plans had been filed to refurbish a billiards parlor on the second floor. But the records also indicate that no permits had been granted to do the work, which included installing a gas furnace on the roof as well as new flooring, heating and ventilation.

In fact, just nine days before the fire, a Buildings Department examiner had rejected the plans, the records show. They also indicate that no revised plans had been filed after that date. The work continued anyway.

Repeated calls to the Department of Buildings were not returned. But Steve Chon, the Flushing-based engineer who is at least nominally in charge of the project, acknowledged that his applications had failed and that work had proceeded regardless. Chon insisted, however, that he had been kept in the dark about the renovations.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Chon said. “My job was to file for the permits and I did that.”

Department of Buildings records also indicate that a complaint about illegal work being done without permits on the second floor of the building had been filed as early as October 25. But although the department is supposed to dispatch inspectors in response to complaints, the records on this building do not reflect any inspectors’ visits.

The complaint also said that workers were throwing construction debris into a container two floors below–another violation. Industry standards dictate that chutes be used to dump debris into containers in order to minimize the risk of injuries to passersby.

Inaction on the part of the Department of Buildings may come as little surprise to those familiar with the agency, which good-government groups have long pilloried as useless when it comes to monitoring construction projects in the city. The department has also been rocked by allegations of corruption and graft at the highest levels–in October, former Queens commissioner James Leonard was indicted on corruption charges.

Flushing City Councilwoman Julia Harrison, an outspoken critic of the foibles of the Department of Buildings–especially the Queens branch–lashed out at the agency and contractors. “I am most outraged about people doing what the hell they want to do with complete contempt for the law,” she fumed. “And the Buildings Department has shown a complete lack of control and enforcement. It has been completely unresponsive about complaints filed.”

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